Saturday, August 15, 2009

Astroturf Strategy Spreads from Health Care to Climate

As the House and Senate have been on August recess, their "town hall meetings"—largely focused on health care legislation—have been met with vociferous, angry, and even violent opponents of any reform. These right-wing conservatives, feeding off each other's anger as well as that of inflammatory media pundits, are taking a stand against what they see as a "government takeover" of health insurance, which they associate with the worst of evils, many comparing it to Socialism, or even Nazism.

Unfortunately, much of this contrived anger and fear is a result of irresponsible media neglecting to provide facts on what the current health care bills would actually change (the government would, in fact, not be "taking over" any insurance options, and there was never anything close to a "death panel" proposed, as ex-governor Palin had insisted last week). And much of it is simply the conservative Republican effort to derail Obama and the Democrats' platform in order to blame them for a slew of failures come 2010, and pick up Congressional seats (even if it does mean leaving millions of Americans without health insurance—a minor hitch to an otherwise noble plan).

But now, finding that this public, "grassroots" (or "astroturf," as some are calling it) outcry strategy is actually working—despite its largely uninformed, and sometimes clandestinely confederate perpetrators—the oil industry is planning to apply it to its opposition to climate legislation in the Senate.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) has written to its member companies asking them to "move aggressively" to stage dozens of anti-climate bill gatherings across the country, mostly in states with swing voters in the Senate. Greenpeace acquired the letter that API distributed, which outlines many of the same false arguments that have been plaguing the climate debate for months. At one point, the letter reads:
After hearing that Waxman-Markey-like legislation could increase the costs of gasoline to around $4 and lead to significant job losses . . . audiences changed their opinions on the bill significantly. Opposition to the bill within the policy influentials cohort grew 23 points, from 40% to 63%; with a 19 point increase in those who now “strongly” oppose the legislation.
What this letter fails to mention is that the $4 figure above comes from research by the Heritage Foundation, which asserts that gasoline will reach that price in 2035. That's 26 years away. And we just had $4 per gallon gas last year, only there were few fuel-efficient cars that found themselves immune to the hikes. I can guarantee that with functional climate change regulations, and more responsible consumer behavior, there will be an abundance of alternatives that will render such a gasoline price increase insignificant. But API doesn't give credence to these trivial details.

So now these astroturf groups—meant to look like regular citizen groups, but actually groups funded by corporations, trade associations, and lobbying firms—will have their voices heard much more readily than those they are impersonating.

And the saddest part is that the targeted Senators, even though they will likely be mindful of these charades, will still be affected by them. Instead of taking a strong stance against artificially engineered rallies and pervasive lies, many Senators will ultimately bow to the pressure exerted upon them—and fueled by the media, who report not on facts, but on spectacles.

If the public were fairly informed about issues like health care and climate change, the debate would be completely lopsided in favor of a comprehensive overhaul of policy on both fronts. But well-endowed corporations, ratings-driven media, and Senators susceptible to being weakened with lies and bought with contributions, are playing no part in helping to accurately educate voters. And those frightening realities of our modern democracy could end up dismantling some of the most important legislative initiatives in our history.

Images: Violent town hall meeting (The National), API Presdient Jack Gerard (flickr), Senator Arlen Specter at a town hall meeting (


  1. Well said; it seems that those who scream the loudest and have the most provocative signs are getting the most airtime, while the private insurance companies use this leverage to pump more money into the lobbying game they have molded for themselves.

    As for the $4 gas in 2035, you are right in that it would be irrelevant with climate change regs and responsible consumerism, but as difficult as the former would be to pass, to try to legislate responsible consumerism (or simply hope and wish that the American consumer would act responsibly) is impossible.

    Take the 70's oil crisis as an example: foreign car companies like Volkswagen and Toyota saw record sales with small compact cars and while the Big Three car companies toned things down a bit, we saw them return with large trucks and SUVs decades later. When another oil crisis hit, those companies went nearly bankrupt, until the government bailed them out (which, for the record, the Hondas and Toyotas did not receive).

    Now how would the government be in a position to try to steer the American consumer into responsiblity when it rewarded irresponsibility in the domestic car market?

  2. Yeah, you're absolutely right. That's why we need a gas price floor. But that's also a political impossibility, despite being one of the best possible policy proposals on several levels.